The Hon. James McGill, a leading merchant and prominent citizen of Montreal, who died in 1813, bequeathed an estate of 46 acres called Burnside Place together with £10,000 to the “Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning” upon condition that the latter erect “upon the said tract or parcel of land, an University or College, for the purpose of education and the advancement of learning in this Province”; and further upon condition that “one of the Colleges to be comprised in the said University shall be named and perpetually be known and distinguished by the appellation of ‘McGill College‘.”
At the time of James McGill's death, the Royal Institution, although authorized by law in 1801, had not been created, but was duly instituted in 1819. In 1821 it obtained a Royal Charter for a university to be called McGill College. Further delay was occasioned by litigation, and the Burnside estate was not acquired until March 1829. The Montreal Medical Institution, which had begun medical lectures at the Montreal General Hospital in 1822, was accepted by the College as its Faculty of Medicine in June 1829. After further litigation, the College received the financial endowment in 1835 and the Arts Building and Dawson Hall were erected. The Faculty of Arts opened its doors in 1843.
Progress, however, was slow until the 1821 Charter was amended in 1852 to constitute the members of the Royal Institution as the Governors of McGill College. Since that time the two bodies have been one. It was first called “The University of McGill College” but in 1885 the Governors adopted the name “McGill University”. Even after the amended charter was granted, little advance was made until 1855 when William Dawson was appointed Principal. When he retired 38 years later, McGill had over 1,000 students and Molson Hall (at the west end of the Arts Building), the Redpath Museum, the Redpath Library, the Macdonald Buildings for Engineering and Physics, and a fine suite of medical buildings had been erected.
Since then the University has continued to grow vigorously. In 1884 the first women students were admitted and in 1899 the Royal Victoria College was opened, a gift of Lord Strathcona, to provide separate teaching and residential facilities for women students. Gradually, however, classes for men and women were merged.
In 1905 Sir William Macdonald established Macdonald College at Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, as a residential college for Agriculture, Household Science, and the School for Teachers. Those components have since become the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, which includes the School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, on the Macdonald Campus, and the Faculty of Education, located on the downtown campus. The University's general development has been greatly facilitated by the generosity of many benefactors, and particularly by the support of its graduates, as regular public funding for general and capital expenditures did not become available until the early 1950s. Since that time government grants have become a major factor in the University's financial operations, but it still relies on private support and private donors in its pursuit of excellence in teaching and research.
The University now comprises 11 faculties and 10 schools. At present over 32,000 students are taking credit courses; one in four is registered in Graduate Studies.
The University is also active in providing courses and programs to the community through the School of Continuing Studies.